After 79 years, playoff baseball back in D.C.

826227.jpg

After 79 years, playoff baseball back in D.C.

From Comcast SportsNet

WASHINGTON (AP) -- As the Washington Nationals' first draft pick back in June 2005, third baseman Ryan Zimmerman was there almost from the start, through the various last-place finishes and the consecutive 100-loss seasons.

He stuck around, signing a couple of long-term contracts, always convinced he would be a part of a winner one day.

That day finally arrived Monday night, when the Nationals clinched their first NL East title since moving from Montreal seven years ago.

And so, his gray championship T-shirt soaked with champagne and beer, white ski goggles dangling around his neck, Zimmerman -- low-key and straight-faced through the ups and downs (well, mostly downs) -- paused in front of the couple of thousand fans in the stands cheering and chanting during the players' on-field celebration. On his way to the home clubhouse at Nationals Park, Zimmerman raised both arms and bellowed.

"The odds were in my favor, that I was going to win at some point here, right?" Zimmerman said moments earlier, smiling as wide a smile as can be.

"For all the things we've been through, all the things this organization's been through," he added, "to be right here, right now, it's pretty impressive."

Despite being beaten 2-0 by the Philadelphia Phillies on Monday night, the Nationals earned the division championship, because the second-place Atlanta Braves lost 2-1 at the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Washington, in first place since May 22, leads Atlanta by three games with two to play in the regular season. The Braves' loss finished as the top of the ninth inning ended in Washington, and the Nationals congratulated each other in their dugout with hugs, high-fives and spiked gloves.

"The way it happened tonight doesn't really matter," Zimmerman said. "We put ourselves in that position to have the luxury of having the other team have to play perfect baseball. We played a great 159, 160 games to get to that point, and we should be commended for that."

Amid the postgame delirium on the field, the crushed cans and strewn bottles collecting in the grass, pitcher Gio Gonzalez grabbed 86-year-old team owner Ted Lerner and steered him toward the gaggle of players.

"Ted, this is your party!" the effervescent left-hander yelled. Then, turning toward teammates, Gonzalez shouted: "Hey! Who's got the cooler? This is the man, right here!"

All in all, 21-game winner Gonzalez and the rest of the first team in 79 years to bring postseason baseball back to the nation's capital threw quite a victory party. Thanks to strong pitching from Gonzalez and Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper's burst of energy and Adam LaRoche's slugging, the Nationals won enough from April through September that even a loss on the first day of October could not stop them from achieving the sort of success that seemed so far away only a few years ago.

"The puzzle came together," Lerner said, "a little earlier than we expected."

When Michael Morse led off the bottom of the ninth, the PA announcer informed the crowd that the home team was the champion, and when the game ended red fireworks lit the night sky with the Capitol building off in the distance beyond left field. The scoreboard declared "NL East Division Champions."

It was the second division crown in franchise history. The Montreal Expos won the NL East in 1981, a strike-shortened season, by beating the Phillies in a best-of-five playoff.

"This is incredible. The excitement. The joy. The fans. Smiles on everyone's faces, the excitement that's going on," Gonzalez said. "Everyone here just witnessed history. Hopefully we can try to continue that journey."

When the game ended, the Phillies -- winners of the previous five NL East titles; already eliminated from playoff contention this year -- gathered in the middle of the diamond for regular post-victory handshakes.

"Made me mad. Yes it did. Very much so. I'm a bad loser," Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said about watching Washington clinch against his club. "Nobody should be a good loser. I'm a bad loser and I always will be."

The Nationals, meanwhile, collected in their home clubhouse for alcohol-spraying. They gathered around general manager Mike Rizzo and dumped bubbly over his shaved head. Harper, who has more homers (22) than years on earth (19), shared some apple cider with LaRoche's 9-year-old son, Drake.

"I'll remember being in the scrum in the middle of the clubhouse with all the guys, just elated and all together," Rizzo said later. "We live with each other for seven months a year. (This is the) culmination of all that emotion and such a successful season for us."

On Sept. 20, the Nationals assured themselves of no worse than an NL wild-card berth -- and guaranteed Washington a postseason game for the first time since the Senators lost the 1933 World Series to the New York Giants.

But even on that night of success, Washington manager Davey Johnson made clear he wasn't all that interested in merely getting a chance to play in a one-game, in-or-out, wild-card playoff. No, he wanted his team to focus on bigger prizes at hand.

With Washington back home from a six-game road trip and on the verge of a big accomplishment, the first roar of the night from the crowd came a few minutes before the first pitch, when a booming voice over the loudspeakers let everyone know that the home team's "magic number is down to one!"

In the end, Kyle Kendrick (11-12) pitched seven scoreless innings for the win. John Lannan (4-1) gave up two runs in five innings for Washington. That the Nationals lost did not matter, of course.

The spectators often rose at key moments, whether their team was at the plate or in the field. Fans also reacted with applause and cheers when the out-of-town scoreboard in right-center field showed that Pittsburgh had taken a lead against Atlanta in the fifth inning.

All in all, quite a contrast from the mostly silent, mostly empty ballparks that were home to Nationals teams that lost 100 games apiece in 2008 and 2009. Then again, those worst-in-baseball clubs earned No. 1 overall picks in the amateur draft that turned into Strasburg and Harper.

Rizzo also oversaw a rebuilding of a farm system and two very key additions from outside the organization: Gonzalez, acquired from Oakland for four prospects last offseason; and Jayson Werth, signed away from Philadelphia with a 126 million free-agent deal in December 2010.

He was right in the middle of all the celebrating, twirling a shirt overhead in the middle of a circle of bouncing, fist-pumping, alcohol-dumping teammates.

Werth was brought to Washington, in part, to show the club how to win, having been a part of the Phillies' perennial division champions and 2008 World Series winners. And so it was somehow fitting that the Nationals' title came on a night when they were facing the Phillies.

"These guys have been through a lot. That just goes to show you it's not easy. It's not easy getting to this point," Werth said. "Luck plays into it a lot. You've got to be on good teams -- and I'm on a good team."

Quick Links

Wizards unlikely to pay any more free agents to attend training camp

Wizards unlikely to pay any more free agents to attend training camp

With the big-ticket item put to bed with Bradley Beal’s max contract, the Wizards are entering a dead period where little will take place leading into Sept. 27 training camp. But there still are key issues to be decided and one is filling out the roster.

By league rule, they can carry as many as 20 players during the offseason at one time. While they still have two spots open for the 15-man regular season roster, it's unlikely the Wizards will pay more players to attend camp.

So when they are said to have "signed" players from this point forward to a "training camp deal," it'll strictly be what's called a "make good" deal. In other words, it's non-guaranteed and the only way that player gets the money is if he makes the final 15. 

The reason for this is because the Wizards have locked in Jarell Eddie, Danuel House, Sheldon McClellan and Daniel Ochefu on deals with partial guarantees -- basically payments to bring them into training camp so if they don't make the cut they'll walk away with something -- that total about $400,000. Although the sum still is relatively small it does count against the $94 million salary cap. Any quality players still looking for a place to attend camp are more likely to go somewhere they have a better chance to make the cut or take guaranteed money now to go abroad like Aaron White did Friday

Micheal Eric played for the Wizards at Las Vegas summer league and was their best center. Even though he has had an invite on the table from the Wizards, the 28-year-old appears unlikely to accept because he wants money to attend, league sources tell CSNmidatlantic.com.  

Quick Links

NL East: Braves trade for 2-time All-Star OF Matt Kemp

NL East: Braves trade for 2-time All-Star OF Matt Kemp

ATLANTA (AP) -- The Braves acquired pricey slugger Matt Kemp and $10.5 million from San Diego for troubled outfielder Hector Olivera.

Atlanta had tried for several months to deal Olivera following his April 13 arrest on domestic violence charges. He is eligible to play again in the major leagues on Tuesday following his 82-game domestic violence suspension. The Padres plan to designate Olivera for assignment when he comes off the restricted list Tuesday, a person with knowledge of the situation told The Associated Press. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the decision has not been announced.

Despite arthritis in both hips, Kemp could boost the weakest offense in the major leagues. Atlanta has baseball's worst record and ranks last in runs scored and homers.

The Braves have just one marquee everyday player, first baseman Freddie Freeman, and need more star appeal as they move a few miles north into a new suburban ballpark next year.

Kemp has a $21.5 million salary this year and is owed the same amount in each of the next three seasons.

San Diego is sending Atlanta $3 million this year as part of the trade: half on Aug. 15 and the rest on Sept. 15. From 2017-19, the Padres will pay the Braves $2.5 million annually, half each May 15 and July 15.

Olivera agreed in early 2015 to a $62.5 million, six-year contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers, then was traded to the Braves last July. He has a $4 million salary this year, but lost $1,792,350 because of his suspension. He is owed $6 million next season, $6.5 million in 2018, $7.5 million in 2019 and $8.5 million in 2020.

San Diego acquired Kemp, a two-time All-Star outfielder with the Dodgers, from Los Angeles in December 2014. It took several days to consummate the trade because Kemp had to be cleared medically.

In 254 games with the Padres, Kemp is hitting .264 -- 28 points lower than his nine-year batting average with the Dodgers -- with 46 homers, 169 RBIs and 247 strikeouts.

Atlanta acquired Olivera from the Dodgers last July 30 in a three-team, 13-player swap that sent Alex Wood and Jose Peraza to Los Angeles.

This trade made financial sense with both teams trying to shed expensive contracts of players no longer fitting long-term plans.

Olivera is on a rehab assignment with Triple-A Gwinnett but was removed from the lineup before Saturday night's game.

He was arrested April 13 at a hotel near Washington, D.C., and Major League Baseball announced May 27 that he had agreed to the suspension, which was retroactive to April 30.

Olivera, who was moved from third base to left field before the start of spring training, hit .245, two homers and 13 RBIs in 30 games with Atlanta. He has a pending court date in Alexandria, Virginia.

In rebuilding the Braves, president of baseball operations John Hart and general manager John Coppolella have traded Craig Kimbrel, Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, Melvin Upton Jr. and Andrelton Simmons for prospects.

Atlanta also has taken on bad contracts for declining players such as Michael Bourn, Nick Swisher and Bronson Arroyo. Dan Uggla was released in July 2014 despite the Braves still owing him $18 million.

[RELATED: Nats may have gotten a steal with Melancon]

SCROLL DOWN FOR MORE NATIONALS STORIES

Quick Links

NL East: Marlins pitcher hurts elbow day after getting traded from Padres

NL East: Marlins pitcher hurts elbow day after getting traded from Padres

MIAMI (AP) -- Right-hander Colin Rea injured his right elbow and left in the fourth inning of his first start with the Miami Marlins on Saturday after being acquired a day earlier from the San Diego Padres.

Rea struck out Jedd Gyorko to lead off the fourth inning, then immediately waved to the trainer. He has right elbow soreness and is considered day-to-day.

Rea pitched 3 1/3 scoreless innings, allowing one hit and striking out four.

David Phelps relieved Rea with the Marlins leading the Cardinal s4-0.

Rea, right-hander Andrew Cashner and prospect Tayron Guerrero were acquired for right-handers Jarred Cosart and Carter Capps and two minor leaguers, pitcher Luis Castillo and first baseman Josh Naylor.

[RELATED: After Melancon trade, what do Nats do with Papelbon?]

SCROLL DOWN FOR MORE NATIONALS STORIES